Haftar heads to Niger for talks, control of southern Libya at stake
TUNIS - In the acrimonious political rivalries that plague Libya, the man who is the real power in the east, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, had concentrated foreign outreach efforts on countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and, to a lesser extent, France — that could give him practical support or those of potential major significance, such as the United States.
Although some foreign governments and the United Nations have tried to keep a door open to him, Haftar has largely ignored them mainly because they recognise and support the rival Presidency Council in Tripoli.
That has been especially so with countries south of the Sahara. Last September, he was the only major Libyan player who refused to attend an African Union summit on Libya.
Haftar, however, recently visited Libya’s south-western neighbour Niger at the invitation of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou for talks on “issues of common strategic interest,” reports said. Also attending were senior members of the Libyan National Army (LNA) as well as the leaders of the Nigerien Army.
The logic behind the visit was simple: With the LNA’s capture in June of Derna, the last Islamist bastion in the east, Haftar turned his attention to southern Libya, convinced he can establish control there.
He attempted that earlier this year, hoping to take advantage of clashes in the main regional city, Sabha, between the Tebu community and the once-dominant Awlad Suleiman tribe. It did not work.
Now, though, apart from some pockets of resistance, the battle in Derna is over and reports indicate Haftar is gathering forces in the south for a major operation. The LNA and its allies control important locations in the region, notably the main airbases apart from the airport in Sabha.
For Haftar, support from Niger to prevent militants, mercenaries and smugglers crossing into Libya or using Niger to retreat to is crucial. The fact that Niamey officially recognises the rival Presidency Council of Fayez al-Sarraj is secondary.
That someone controls southern Libya — Fezzan as it is usually known — is very much in the interests of Niger. Since the 2011 revolution, the region has descended into anarchy. In the absence of any strong authority, there have been regular outbreaks of violence between various tribes and communities, crime has soared and the region has become a haven for terrorists and the centre of smuggling operations of people, arms and drugs. It has become a crucible of instability for the entire Sahel region.
In 2013, following a suicide bombing in the Nigerien town of Agadez, in which 19 people died, and an attack on a uranium mine further north, Issoufou claimed that Fezzan was the base for terrorist operations in his country. A few months later, Nigerien Foreign Minister Massoudou Hassoumi demanded that the international community, having helped overthrow the Qaddafi regime, intervene in Fezzan, which he described as an “incubator for terrorist groups.”
Securing Fezzan and Libya’s southern border is also in the interests of Chad and Sudan, which have suffered the fallout from the chaos there.
It was no coincidence that Haftar’s visit to Niamey came a day before the governments of the three southern neighbours plus Sarraj’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala met in Khartoum to discuss border security, human smuggling and other problems resulting from the lack of security and stability in Libya.
Haftar was not invited. The neighbouring states do not officially recognise him as a political player. Niger, however, wanted to know his plans.
There has been deep hostility between Haftar and Sudan almost since the start of his operation in 2014 to rid Benghazi of Islamist militants, with accusations that Khartoum was supporting them. The Sudanese claimed Haftar was using Darfuri rebels to fight for him.
LNA relations are strained with Chad, again with accusations of Chadians — Tebus and Chadian opposition fighters willing to fight for anyone who pays them — fighting in Libya.
The potential for closer relations between Niger and Haftar based on mutual interest is boosted by their international relationships and views on the human smuggling trail from Agadez into Libya.
In the rivalry for influence in Libya between France and Italy, Haftar and Niger are opposed to Italy. Plans by the Italians to send troops to Niger to deter migrants heading to Libya were angrily rejected by the Nigeriens. France is a prime ally of Niger and maintains a strong military presence there. For much of the past seven years, Paris’s prime interest regarding Libya was to ensure that chaos in the country does not infect Niger and other Sahel states.
With the battle against the Islamic State and other jihadists moving into the Sahel, the United States, which Haftar sees as a potential ally, has a growing military presence in Niger, deploying a drone force there.
As such, it would be very much in Paris’s and Washington’s interests to see the LNA emerge as the controlling military power throughout Fezzan. For that to happen, Haftar needs to ensure that the militants and the mercenaries cannot escape across the Niger border when the LNA strikes.
It is unclear when Haftar would begin his operation but his supporters promise it will be soon.
As to whether it will succeed, given the complex dynamics of southern Libya, that is another matter. There is a view that the region will remain chaotic and divided as long as northern Libya — Tripolitania and Cyrenaica — remains divided and there is no united government to impose its will throughout the country.